It’s actually my fault. That spa badge is too hard to find. After writing an article for the Columbia Journalism Review which sparked a debate around the world, I got three emails from Andrea, who is spending his holidays at my house, searching for the card that would allow him free use of the facilities. Like the emails from Clara before him, which arrived after a long day spent in the disaster zone of Aleppo, they were labelled “Urgent!”. For once, however, they were the most beautiful emails I could imagine receiving: there to remind me that we never are the centre of the world. That the world is made up of many worlds. Ones in which Egyptian generals take power in Egypt. Or hundreds of Syrians remain trapped in Homs suffering airstrikes, while Europe honours Srebrenica’s anniversary by swearing “never again”.
After describing the conditions that I work under in Syria, my relationship with my editors and the amount they pay me, I was deluged with responses. Why did you agree to write for so little ($70)?, many of you asked. If we all agreed not to do so, the problem would be solved. And that’s true. But the fact is that of the many brilliant freelancers I have met, those who didn’t agree simply changed job in the end. Instead, I changed jobs to become a journalist. And it’s exactly because I cannot be a journalist under these conditions that I wrote what I wrote.
Of course, I also got the usual messages from the usual editor-in-chief who claims it’s down to readers if I’m not able to command decent pay for my work: because the subjects I work on are too complex for you. But whether it’s $70 or $700, the point is that we are asked to be the fastest, instead of listening, thinking, studying and aspiring to be the clearest. They call it simplicity, but in fact it’s superficiality. And so, thanks goes to the many of you, who, in the most disastrous and forgotten areas on earth offered me a dinner and a couch to sleep on in order that your stories would eventually be told. Thank you for realising that I wasn’t just out for myself, but you too: championing your rights as citizens, not just mine as a worker.
And the response from readers, rather than journalists has in fact been impressive. You have pointed out that I was wrong. I believed my role was simply to write – I believed everything else was down to other people. In fact, the work I do to produce information, in this age of digital revolution, is no longer detached from the work of distributing it. You are right. I cannot just write my pieces, stuff them in a bottle and rely on the sea. I am equally aware, however, that the solution cannot be the most popular one: start your own blog, even with all the clever proposals for crowd-funding or reading fees that might accompany it.
Journalism is not an individual endeavour. It cannot be done with just a Moleskine notebook and an iPhone. And not only because of logistical needs. It isn’t a solitary adventure. For me, a newspaper or a magazine is a vision, a way of understanding of the world, not just a patchwork of news. Consider Syria: any honest media outlet should have a correspondent amid the rebels and a correspondent in Damascus. Covering Syria, today, is a joint endeavour – if the goal is to explain to you what’s going on, and not just to be rewarded for the cool way you write.
And yet, truthfully speaking, that’s why the silence of my fellow freelancers has been so bitter. I hoped everybody would respond by reporting a fragment of his or her own experience. I hoped they would come out in solidarity, that they would say: this is my story, too. It didn’t turn out that way. Pondering this, however, I began to ask – should I look to freelancers, to the weak? Should I ask them to react, or the editors and managers who could change things, instead of merely tweeting solidarity?
If it’s such hell, I have been asked by many, why do you keep on? Perhaps I am odd, but for me the real question is another one: you, why you are not in Syria, now? When I said that Aleppo was the only job opportunity I have (words that have been thrown back at me along with the charge of exploiting the suffering of Syrians), I meant that I would like to be free to write on something else – because wars with tanks and missiles are not the only conflicts, simply the most visible ones. I would have gone to Syria anyway. And for a very instinctive reason: because I know what solitude is, and I don’t want others to feel alone. That’s all. I am well aware that today it’s hard to believe that somebody is motivated by a sense of moral urgency. But I am in Jerusalem, as I write, and I can assure you that here, on both sides of the wall, many pay a high personal price every day simply to keep on doing what they think is right – and it would be lovely to be here talking about them, rather than me.
Because in the end nobody has asked me about the reactions of Syrians. “More than 100,000 dead,” Karim commented, “and the piece on Syria that went viral worldwide is a piece about journalists.” Amid the many emails still to read, I think I will find a message by Bashar al-Assad: “Dear Francesca, Thanks. It would be so difficult without journalists like you.” Published in The Guardian.